Why a new Britney Spears documentary is re-examining the pop star's story

A documentary revisiting the career of 1990s pop superstar Britney Spears is sparking fresh discourse about the making — and breaking — of a celebrity.

Spears prepares for new court hearing in the ongoing conservatorship case on Thursday

Documentary aims to reframe Britney Spears

3 years ago
Duration 2:00
The new documentary Framing Britney Spears is pushing a cultural reckoning on how the media treats women and celebrities and looks to reframe how the world and media treated a young woman in distress.

A documentary revisiting the career of 1990s pop star Britney Spears is sparking fresh discourse about the making — and breaking — of a young female entertainer.

Framing Britney Spears, an episode of the New York Times Presents series that aired on FX and Hulu in the U.S. last week, takes a critical look at the often-misogynistic media coverage that has dogged Spears much of her life — from the unrelenting onslaught of paparazzi she faced to the complicity of a culture that continually made light of her personal and mental health struggles.

It also profiles the group of devoted young fans, united through the hashtag #FreeBritney, now seeking justice for the performer.

Today, Spears heads back to court in Los Angeles for the latest hearing in her ongoing fight to exert more control over her person and estate in the conservatorship a judge ordered more than a decade ago. Here's what you need to know about the case.

What is conservatorship and why did she need it?

Spears, 39, has been under court-ordered conservatorship since 2008, when she was in her mid-20s. A conservator is appointed by a judge to care for an adult deemed unable to care for himself or herself and susceptible to undue influence.

The decision came following a tumultuous period that included the birth of her children, the dissolution of her marriage to former dancer Kevin Federline and instances of erratic behaviour captured publicly by the paparazzi photographers seen hounding her. That included Spears shaving her head in 2007 amid a custody battle with Federline and attacking the SUV of a paparazzo with an umbrella.

Spears performs onstage during the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. The performance had been promoted as a comeback after a year of personal crisis in the public eye, but was panned by critics. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

"The pressure for such a young person and the horrible way she was treated by the media [including tabloid media], I think it was nasty," said Karen Bliss, Canadian correspondent for music industry outlet Billboard, who watched the documentary this past week.

"I think it should be illegal to be that intrusive. It's dangerous. She's swarmed, literally swarmed around her car, everywhere she goes."

"When you see it chronologically — the paparazzi in particular and even seasoned, legitimate journalists like Diane Sawyer talk about such personal things and accusatory things that have no bearing on her art — and then to see her spiral and people take delight in it and people make money from it, it's heartbreaking."

Spears' initial conservators included her father, Jamie Spears, and a lawyer appointed by the court. 

Though the entertainer proceeded to release several new albums and had a residency in Las Vegas in the ensuing years, the conservatorship — which encompasses decisions made about her health, wellbeing, and finances estimated by Forbes to be worth $60 million US —  has loomed like a dark cloud.

Through her lawyer, Britney Spears has asked that her father Jamie Spears, left, not be allowed to return to the role as one of her conservators. (The Associated Press)

After years of not addressing the conservatorship publicly, rumblings of trouble began early in 2019. Spears announced an indefinite hiatus from performing that January, citing family health issues. Spears' father partly stepped back from his role. Then, the co-conservator lawyer resigned, with an interim replacement appointed by the court.

Last year, the pop star's lawyer made a court filing opposing the return of her father as conservator of her person and she vowed not to resume her career unless he withdrew.

What's #FreeBritney?

Rallying under a hashtag, a group of Spears' fans have endeavoured for the past few years to bring public attention back to the popstar's status. Supporters attempt to parse every Instagram post for hidden meanings and openly theorize about what control she has over her own life.

The #FreeBritney movement has gotten support from celebrity contemporaries like Paris Hilton and fellow pop stars such as Miley Cyrus, and some of its loyal members are featured in the documentary discussing why the singer is so important to them.

Supporters of Spears attend the #FreeBritney Protest outside the Los Angeles Courthouse on Sept. 16, 2020. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

"What Framing Britney Spears has done is really pull all those threads together and it has allowed the wider public to really look at the different parts of what makes a pop star like Britney Spears and how those same parts can also destroy a pop star like Britney Spears," said pop culture writer Amil Niazi, producer of the CBC podcast Pop Chat.

POP CHAT | The #FreeBritney movement and what the culture owes Britney Spears

Our first live show, at the Vancouver Podcast Festival! We take a deep breath and talk about how the last four years of the news cycle broke us. We also dive in to the #FreeBritney movement and what the culture owes Britney Spears.

Niazi said the documentary has done a good job of explaining both the conservatorship and giving context to the sensationalized events that led up to it. 

What's behind this renewed attention?

There's been a wider move in documentary and feature films return to cultural figures of the recent past and reexamine them with a new lens shifted by movements such as #MeToo as well as a greater acknowledgement and acceptance of mental health struggles.

Recent projects have forced viewers to revisit and potentially reconsider their views of hitmakers like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, who were accused of sexual abuse, as well as women who were reduced to late-night punch-lines during past scandals, such as Monica Lewinsky.

    Framing Britney Spears follows in this vein and along with #FreeBritney, they're starting to have an impact on how we view young female entertainers, according to Niazi. 

    "People are really re-examining how we talk about young women, how we talk about pop stars, how we talk about women's sexuality in general."

    For instance, she says, there is a 2007 clip of comedian and former late-night host Craig Ferguson that's resurfaced.  He delivers a monologue declaring why he doesn't feel right continuing to make jokes about Spears and instead speaks about low points in his own life and sobriety.

    Spears at the 1999 Teen Choice Awards in Los Angeles, where she won single of the year for 'Baby One More Time.' (Brenda Chase/Online USA, Inc. via Getty Images)

    At that time, Ferguson was an outlier in speaking out, Niazi said, but more people are now realizing their complicity in perpetuating a certain perception of the pop star.

    "We have to change how we talk about these young kids and we have to change how we exploit the people in this industry: Billie Eilish comes to mind as someone who's sort of a contemporary who receives a lot of that same scrutiny. Hopefully the real impact will be that we change our approach to Billie Eilish, because we can't go back and change our approach to Britney Spears," she said.

      Will we ever see Britney back on-stage?

      Spears' four-year Las Vegas residency proved that she has the chops to continue as a successful entertainer, said Bliss.

      "She's certainly able to pull off a top-of-the-line show and work her ass off and do all these shows in a row. So she's healthy enough and of sound mind to know what she wants and be able to deliver a fantastic pop show," said the veteran music journalist, who recalled first interviewing Spears when the then-teen singer was promoting her debut album.

      "These aren't crappy shows: these are completely professional, well put-together shows.

      Spears performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 24, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

      "I would think if you're able to show up and perform for 90 minutes at that calibre that you're also capable — with a financial adviser that we would all need if we made that kind of money — [of carrying] on with life just fine without having a conservatorship." 

      What's important is Spears regaining the ability to do what she wants, says Niazi.

      "For so long we've grown accustomed to talking about her as though she has no agency, as though she has no power because Jamie Spears has been in charge of her money [and person].... Hopefully this [spotlight] allows Britney to take some of that power back," she said. 

      "I would be curious to know what is it that Britney Spears wants to do with the rest of her life. If it's performing, I think this is a great opportunity for her to sort of have a second act. But if it's not performing, I think that we should leave space for that as well and really just let her decide what she does with her life."

      FRONTBURNER |  Britney Spears' conservatorship and why some feel it's about a lot more than one pop star

      This week, Britney Spears lost a legal battle to remove her father as her conservator — a court-ordered agreement that has put him and a lawyer in charge of her finances and daily life since 2008. Her conservatorship has spawned #FreeBritney, a sometimes-conspiratorial movement whose adherents believe Spears is essentially a prisoner in her own life. But it has also attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, who have offered Spears legal support and consider her guardianship a disability rights issue. Today, Constance Grady, a culture writer for Vox, joins us to talk about Spears' conservatorship, how she got here, and why some people feel that this story is about a lot more than one pop star.


      Jessica Wong

      Senior digital writer

      Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at Jessica.Wong@cbc.ca.

      With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson